Turning Point 1: An Accidental Metropolis

  • By Walt Crowley and the HistoryLink.org Staff
  • Posted 11/22/2000
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9275
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This the first in a series of special essays commissioned by The Seattle Times to examine crucial turning points in the history of Seattle and King County. "An Accidental Metropolis" considers the gambles, contingencies, and blind luck that led to the Euro-American discovery and early settlement of what is today Seattle and King County. It was first published on October 1, 2000; this version incorporates a few subsequent corrections and clarifications. It is by Walt Crowley and the HistoryLink Staff, based on input by Greg Lange, Priscilla Long, Alan Stein, David Wilma, Greg Watson, and John Findlay.

An Accidental Metropolis

Greetings from the City of Duwamps, in the great State of Columbia!

That you know this place better as Seattle, Washington, is an accident of history -- the product of innumerable events, great and small, that could have taken any direction to create a present very different from the one we inhabit.

The trajectory of our community's evolution was not charted by the gods or blind dialectics but set by living people making hard choices in the real world. Sometimes they displayed great vision and courage, sometimes they succumbed to greed and prejudice. Sometimes they mastered the forces of society, economics, and nature, sometimes these forces mastered them.

And at pivotal moments, our forebears' decisions and actions set into motion developments that changed the vector and character of all that would follow.

In the fall of 2001, Seattle and King County will observe the 150th anniversary of their founding. In anticipation of our metropolitan sesquicentennial, The Seattle Times and HistoryLink will spend the next twelve months examining crucial "turning points" in local history.

We will consider how the choices of the past still influence those we face today, and, occasionally, venture down the roads not taken in our history. Today's article begins at the beginning with the first accidents, miscalculations, lucky gambles, and acts of courage that set our history in motion.

A Silent Invasion

Let us first acknowledge a cruel fact of our community's birth: the path to settlement of the Pacific Northwest was cleared by a conquering army more ruthless and relentless than any in history, yet invisible to human eyes.

In the late 1700s, Old World diseases such as smallpox, measles, turberculosis, and syphilis accompanied the first trappers and explorers to reach the Pacific. Historians believe that from to 60 percent to 90 percent of the Indian population of our region perished virtually overnight. This biological holocaust left the survivors unable to cope with, let alone resist, the great swarms of settlers who would soon surge westward across Canada and the United States, and established a fundamental inequity that would foreordain the outcome of the conflicts to come.

Habla Espanol, eh?

Driven by the myth of a "Northwest Passage" linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, by the lure of limitless natural resources, and by geopolitical competition, European explorers prowled our coast for decades -- without discovering Puget Sound. The Russians missed it entirely and so did the Spanish, even though they explored and named the San Juans and established settlements at Neah Bay and Nootka Sound.

It took the British three tries to find Puget Sound. Finally, in 1792, Captain George Vancouver took the right turn at Admiralty Inlet, and dropped anchor near Bainbridge Island. He dispatched Lt. Peter Puget to sound the inland sea that now bears his name. Legend has it that a young Chief Seattle watched this expedition unfold, oblivious to the future consequences for his people.

That same year, the U.S. mariner Robert Gray discovered the mouth of the Columbia River, which drew the finish line for Lewis and Clark in 1805 and launched a 50-year rivalry between Britain and its former colonies for control of the Pacific Northwest. In 1841, U.S. Captain Charles Wilkes charted and named Elliott and Commencement bays, and served notice to the Hudson's Bay Company camp at Fort Nisqually that the Yanks were coming.

American settlers were already trickling westward, and a handful of them declared an independent Territory of Oregon in 1843. Three years later, Great Britain -- then the most powerful nation in the world -- ceded its claims below the 49th parallel without a fight (excepting the loss of one of Her Majesty's pigs in a later dispute over San Juan Island).

This U.S. "conquest" of the Pacific Northwest was never guaranteed. Under any number of plausible circumstances, our area could have been easily retained by the British -- or even been preempted by the Spanish.

Room for One Thousand

Early settler Isaac Ebey explored Elliott Bay in 1849. His tales of the Duwamish River's rich delta intrigued a young John Holgate, who had naively carried fir tree seedlings west from his native Iowa with the idea of planting a forest.

Holgate decided on a claim at the mouth of the Duwamish in the summer of 1850, but headed back east without filing the proper paperwork. When he returned in 1853, he found a colony of farmers led by Luther Collins already tilling the same area under the Donation Claims Act, which allotted 320 acres to each U.S. citizen entering Oregon Territory.

On September 25, 1851, three new visitors arrived: John Low, Lee Terry, and a young David Denny, whose father and brother had guided a small band of pioneers from Illinois to Portland. With the Duwamish "taken," Low and Terry staked claims on Alki Beach.

Unlike the Duwamish farmers, the Denny Party dreamed of founding a great city in the Northwest. Low returned to Portland bearing a note from Denny to his brother Arthur that read "There is plenty of room for one thousand settlers. Come at once."

The balance of the Denny Party (two dozen men, women, and children in all) arrived off Alki Beach on the misty morning of November 13, 1851. They rowed ashore from the sloop Exact and found David Denny lying gravely ill inside a roofless cabin. The women and children wept at the sight of their new home, we are told, but not for joy.

From this tentative, precarious beachhead would spring the Northwest's largest city and the nation's 12th most populous county.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

All of these comings and goings were observed by Chief Seattle, now leader of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes. A brave and savvy fighter, he and his warriors could have easily wiped out these helpless aliens in their midst. Instead, nearly a thousand natives camped around the little Alki settlement in the belief it might afford protection from northern tribes that routinely raided Puget Sound villages. Thus they exchanged the devil they knew for one they didn't in a fateful trade.

Beyond merely tolerating his new neighbors, Chief Seattle actively encouraged the influx by urging a physician and store manager named David S. "Doc" Maynard to relocate from Olympia to the fledgling village of "New York" at Alki (which means "by and by" in Chinook jargon). Maynard was unimpressed by the site's prospects and joined most of the Denny Party in relocating to the eastern shore of Elliott Bay in the spring of 1852. They staked claims to the steep forest ridges fronting the bay and began building cabins on a low peninsula in the heart of today's Pioneer Square.

The settlement was initially dubbed "Duwamps" (also spelled D'wamps or Dewamps in early records), but Maynard had a better idea: name it for Chief Seattle. This rendering is, by the way, considered more accurate phonetically than then later version "Sealth." Such willy-nilly use of one's name was frowned on in native tradition, but Chief Seattle's reaction to this "honor" is not recorded.

The Other Columbia

The new village name was printed for the first time in an October 30, 1852, ad in the Olympia Columbian for Maynard's "Seattle Exchange." That same month,  selected the tiny town as the site of the region's first steam-powered sawmill.

Yesler had deliberately triggered a bidding war among the wannabe metropolises on the Sound, for securing the mill guaranteed instant economic dominance. Doc Maynard won the nod for Seattle with a generous donation of portions of his own claim and those of Arthur Denny and Carson Boren. This yielded Yesler a waterfront mill site at the foot of "Skid Road" (now Yesler Way) and ample acreage upland from which to harvest timber.

By this date, roughly 1,000 settlers had located north of the Columbia River, enough to justify a north-south bisection of the Oregon Territory. The leading citizens of "Northern Oregon" met in October 1852 and memorialized Congress for a new "Territory of Columbia."

As a ploy to win federal favor, the would-be "Columbians" persuaded the Oregon Territorial Legislature on December 22, 1852, to create new counties named for incoming U.S. President Franklin Pierce and his Vice President, William Rufus Devane King (who died before taking office). This helped to grease the ways in Congress, but at the last moment, Kentucky Rep. Richard Stanton suggested that the territory's name be changed to "Washington" to avoid confusion with the District of Columbia.

The amendment prevailed, and the Territory of Washington -- which then stretched to western Montana -- was signed into existence on March 2, 1853. Eleven weeks later, on May 23, Maynard, Arthur Denny, and Carson Boren filed the first plats for the "Town of Seattle."

Accidents Will Happen

Seattle, King County, and the Territory of Washington were now official. At each turn in the prologue to their birth, decisions bold and timid, and events tragic and comical, not to mention raw chance, played crucial roles. Only 20 years had elapsed since the first settlers arrived on Puget Sound, but the area's future growth and prosperity were by no means assured.

Looking back on these events, the what-ifs pile up: if the natives had not been hobbled by disease and internecine warfare, if the Spanish had sailed south of the San Juans, if the British had stood their ground in Oregon, if Chief Seattle had been a less gracious host, if the Denny Party had remained at Alki, if Maynard had stayed in Olympia, if Yesler had built his mill elsewhere on Puget Sound, if Rep. Stanton had kept his mouth shut -- how different things might have turned out.

Contemplation of such contingencies is no mere parlor game but a prelude to a measure of humility -- and wisdom -- best expressed, perhaps, in the seemingly opposite conclusions reached by two great students of history.

"What experience and history teach is this --," wrote Hegel in 1832, "that people and governments never have learned anything from history... ." Seventy years later, Santayana replied, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Both axioms ring true, for people are slow to apply the lessons of history, yet ignorance of the past only ensures the perpetuation of its errors and follies.

Our faith in reason and progress -- our belief that tomorrow is not merely yesterday dressed up in modern costume -- demands that we recognize the full humanity, good and bad, of those who came before us and, that we tread carefully in blazing the trails leading to the future our own children will inherit.

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